Pipes are calling Palestinian refugees


A pipe band made up of young Palestinian refugees was the toast of the Festival InterCeltique in Brittany, writes Lara Marlowe

When 21 Palestinians between the ages of 14 and 25 arrived in Lorient for the Festival InterCeltique, they were surprised to see dozens of white tents in the centre of town. "Are there Palestinians here too?" one asked.

The tents were in fact the shops of the "Celtic Village", but they reminded the young Arab pipers of their own fate as refugees in the Bourj al-Shemali camp near Tyre, southern Lebanon.

The musical group Ghirab ("bagpipes" in Arabic) stole some of the limelight from Ireland, the guest of honour at this year's festival, which ended yesterday. But no one begrudges these young people, most of them orphans, their moment of glory. Each time they marched through the streets of Lorient in their scouts' uniforms or in traditional costume in the main parade on August 7th, they were applauded. Their bagpipes and drums are bedecked with Palestinian flags; even their drumsticks are painted green, black, red and white.

Though the origin of bagpipes is not certain, one theory suggests similar instruments made from sheep's stomachs were brought back from Palestine by medieval crusaders.

The British officer Sir John Glubb ("Glub Pasha" to the Arabs) brought bagpipes to the region when he commanded the Arab Legion from 1939 until 1956. The Ghirab pipe band was formed in Lebanon in 1989.

"The pipe bands here have such beautiful instruments," Mahmoud al-Jumaa, the Palestinian social worker who supervises Ghirab, says longingly. "We don't have money for new bagpipes . . . This one is from Pakistan," he says, revealing a much mended leather pouch beneath the flag covering. "This one is from Scotland," he continues, holding up a broken pipe wrapped in electrical tape.

By chance, Jean-Yves Le Drian, the president of the region of Brittany and a former mayor of Lorient, saw Palestinians playing bagpipes when he visited Bourj al-Shemali last November. "We must have them for our festival," he said.

The French embassy in Beirut and the socialist Fondation Jean Jaures organised the journey, the first time most of the stateless Palestinians have left Lebanon. It took five months for Lebanese authorities to issue them with travel documents.

The philosophy of the Festival InterCeltique is to support minority cultures, and to embrace the broadest possible definition of what it means to be Celtic.

Mahmoud al-Jumaa sees a parallel between the Celts - "one of the few peoples in the world who are not defined by national borders" - and the scattered Palestinians. "They are an ancient people, like us," he says. "They too passed through difficulties, so they feel for us."

Al-Jumaa says the festival is a morale-booster for his charges. "This generation want to build a future. They want to marry, but their lives are closed off."

The Lebanese government has banned the refugees of Bourj al-Shemali from building more permanent housing than their tin-roofed shacks and Lebanese law forbids them from practising 74 professions, including medicine, law, architecture and engineering. Israel will not consider allowing them to return.

Wassïm Said (25) led the Ghirab band through the streets of Lorient. "Everything is so orderly here," he said. "When I see the peace and prosperity of Europe, I think I have the right to live like other people . . . By coming here, in our way we are fighting for Palestine."

Said's grandparents, like those of Rasha Abu Kharoub (21), fled al-Naameh village in northern Galilee in 1948. Though "home" is only a few dozen kilometres away, the third generation refugees have never seen it.

Mahmoud al-Jumaa sees education - and bagpipes - as a means of slowing the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.

"A child with no purpose in life is a potential suicide bomber," he says. "Music occupies their minds, for a while. But if we remain in exile and the international community does not open its arms to us as the festival has, the Islamists could win."